What transpired at the University of Missouri earlier this week and what is now taking place at Vanderbilt University is a classic case of reaping what one has sown. Higher education has descended to a depth from which it cannot escape, because it has destroyed the very intellectual tools by which it could do so.
The first situation to which I referred is the utter breakdown in communication between competing factions at the University of Missouri—minority students and a university leadership those students deemed insufficiently responsive to their concerns. The breakdown led to those minority students dictating to those ostensibly in positions of authority over the administration of the university what employment decisions needed to be made.
The second situation is a Change.org petition circulating at Vanderbilt by which students are calling for the ouster of Dr. Carol Swain because she has espoused viewpoints that the students don’t like, that they deem intolerant, bigoted, and unwelcoming.
The response of Vanderbilt’s Chancellor Zeppos is reflective of the problem:
“Speech whose sole purpose or effect is to discriminate, stigmatize, retaliate, offend, foment hatred or violence, or cause harm has no place in this university.”
Nobody likes speech “whose sole purpose is to foment hatred, violence or harm,” but what is this “effect” test to which Zeppos refers? It is a test of “truth” that lets the hearer decide the outcome. In this case, it will prove to be students who have been steeped in relativism and subjectivism and the belief that feelings are the ultimate arbiter of “truth.”
Relativism, by definition, must question anything that purports to be authoritative, and, of course, nothing can be authoritative if there is no source of authority. Consequently, today’s public universities and “elite” private colleges must therefore implicitly, if not explicitly, call into question all sources of authority.
Thus, university leaders like those at Missouri and Zeppos at Vanderbilt can scarcely assert any legitimate authority over the administration of their universities, for they unwittingly disavow the very notion of authority—or at least when they do assert their authority over a situation, the authority they assert must be grounded only in power and will, not in any reasoned, rational, or philosophical or theological grounds.
But if power is the basis for authority, then who is to say that the students at Missouri were wrong to exert their own power, their own force, their own will? Who is to say that the Vanderbilt students should not start petitions and demand the ouster of Dr. Swain or any professor (or administrator) whose views offend them? When will the Vanderbilt students “wise up” and find a way to attack the true authoritative god at Vanderbilt?
And who might that god be? It’s money. Money has become the one true source of authority on university campuses—their god—which is why the students at the University of Missouri were ultimately effective. They were poised to affect the university’s financial bottom line, which meant that those “ostensibly” in authority, the president and system president, had to go. Having seen that power can win, those who think they are in power, university administrators, will eventually begin to lose their power.
College campuses are in intellectual and moral chaos, and they don’t even realize it. If they do, they don’t seem to know why. They are so awash in moral relativism and its implications that they can’t think straight anymore; they think in circles. Having taught tolerance as the one “true” value, they have raised a generation of the intolerant who turn upon their teachers and leaders.
There is no end in sight for this madness unless our universities recover that which the word “university” implies—the existence of universal truths. The one tool they need to dig out of their mess is the one tool they have destroyed.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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